Active Learning in the University Classroom, or What I Learned from Elementary School Teachers
Edward Berenson, May 1996
Even though I have been a history professor for nearly 16 years, I didn't really think seriously about history education, about how to teach history, until I spent 3 years (1990–93) as executive director of the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP), a statewide professional development effort for public school teachers. As the founder and first director of the CHSSP, my main task was to establish summer institutes and other programs for K–12 teachers on 10 university campuses throughout the state. Each institute was premised on collaboration between professors and teachers in which the two groups worked to develop disciplinary understanding in particular fields of history and techniques for creating a lively interactive classroom. Both professors and teachers grounded their work in the use of primary sources. The overall goal of the project was to form a group of teacher-leaders who would be in a position to assist their colleagues throughout the state.
When people ask who taught me the most during my three years as director of the CHSSP, I'm tempted to list people like Bill Honig, who was then California's superintendent of public instruction, or Jim Grey, the Berkeley guru of writing instruction. But the real answer is the group of gifted elementary and middle school teachers who formed the CHSSP's leadership cadre. These individuals, too numerous to mention by name, showed me that history education needs to be an active, hands-on process, that students need to work in collaborative groups, analyzing sources and forming their own interpretations in the classroom itself. Elementary school teachers, in particular, taught me that students learn best when they can construct their own knowledge.
Before my involvement with the CHSSP, student evaluations told me that I was a successful teacher. I even won a distinguished teaching award. But I now realize that I was doing too little to model the process of historical inquiry, to show undergraduates what I did in my own research—or better yet, to encourage them to undertake historical inquiry of their own. Only rarely did I make explicit the interpretative and evaluative process that undergirded my lectures, nor did I identify my statements, as often as I should, as parts of an argument or historiographical debate. Having failed to present my own lectures as analysis, I then asked my students to write analytical papers and essay exams. Small wonder that I was usually disappointed with what they turned in.
It is not always practical, of course, to show how a lecture has been produced; there is a great deal of material to cover and time is short. But there are a number of other things we can do to give students the day-to-day experience of historical analysis and reflection. Many of them I have learned from colleagues whose job it is to teach adolescents with raging hormones.
The first thing I learned is that the best school teachers rarely lecture for more than a few minutes at a time. Granted, their students' powers of concentration are rudimentary at best, but it is not as though the average 19-year-old possesses dazzling abilities in this domain. Rather than devote an entire period to lecture, K–12 teachers create activities in which students analyze primary sources, engage in debate, turn a document into a script to be enacted, "interview" classmates posing as historical figures, construct a pharaoh's tomb, and the like. These learning events are punctuated by minilectures that give context and help students make analytical connections. The lecture is not an end in itself; its purpose is to facilitate the students' own process of discovery.
One of the most fruitful techniques for encouraging student inquiry is cooperative (or collaborative) learning. A good bit of pedagogical theory exists on the subject of cooperative learning, but put simply, it involves dividing a class into small groups and having the members of those groups discuss a document, answer questions, write a script, or perform some other activity in collaboration with one another. The idea behind it is that students are more likely to speak and participate in the intimate setting of a small group than before the class as a whole. My own experiments with this technique have amply shown that students are much more likely to participate in small groups than in the traditional teacher-student ping pong of Socratic questioning. The problems with this classic approach are all too familiar. You ask a question only to be met with a strained silence. You ask it another way, and then another until a brave soul dares to respond. Another variation is that you have two or three "talkers" in the class who compete with one another to respond while the rest of the students recede into the background. Either way, this is hardly pedagogy at its best.
I found that it takes some courage to attempt with college students what elementary school teachers do with their pupils every day. Undergraduates are often reluctant to move their chairs (or move themselves when seats are bolted to the floor), and group work seems, well, adolescent. But my efforts to make them do it have paid off handsomely.
A classroom exercise might look like this: for a discussion of the Industrial Revolution, I begin by dividing the students into groups of five. Members of each group then read a short document, perhaps an excerpt from parliamentary testimony on child labor. I then ask the students to discuss in their groups a list of questions I have prepared about the document. After about 10 minutes of in-group discussion—which I always have to forcibly cut off—I bring the whole class back together. A spokesperson from each group then summarizes his or her group's conclusions for the rest of the class. A general, and often lively, discussion ensues.
The next step in this exercise is to give a different document or piece of literature to each group, whose members each receive a number from one to five. Group members discuss their own document among themselves so that each student in the class develops a strong sense of the meaning of the text assigned to his or her group. At this point, the original group structure dissolves, and the class reassembles with all the number ones in one group, the twos in another, and so on. Each member of a given new group has studied a different document, and the task of each is to explain that document to the rest of the group. This method gives students responsibility for teaching their peers, and in doing so motivates them to work harder than they otherwise might. In addition, by listening to their colleagues' explanations, students learn about texts they haven't yet read themselves.
This kind of approach works best in a discussion class of no more than 30 or 40, but I have tried it with success in larger lectures as well. I try in my lecture to create the context for a document or set of documents I want the students to analyze and then divide the lecture hall into groups, giving each a text to consider. After a few minutes of discussion within the groups, I restore order and solicit some general comments about the document(s) in question. I then return to the lecture, having given the students a chance to escape the passive note-taking mode and think actively about the material. To make sure that students actually discuss the texts I distribute and not last night's basketball game, I wander around the hall ostentatiously eavesdropping on their conversations.
In courses too large to make small groups practical, I stop the lecture from time to time and raise a question that follows logically from the points I've been making. I then ask the students to discuss the question briefly with the person on their right. Not everyone obeys, but those who do have yet another opportunity to process the information and ideas I have given them in lecture. They move, however briefly, from the passive to the active mode.
I have found these efforts to promote active learning so encouraging that in my capacity as vice-chair for graduate studies I have begun to introduce our department's teaching assistants to the techniques and ideas I have learned from colleagues in the public schools. For three years now, my successor at the CHSSP, Amanda Podany, and I have led workshops for new TM on cooperative learning. Our single two-hour sessions have proved so successful in improving our graduate students' teaching skills that I have applied for money to hold a three-day summer mini-institute next September for our new teaching assistants. If funded, the institute will give our graduate- student teachers a more intensive introduction to cooperative learning and other interactive classroom methods. Podany and I will direct it along with a few of our most experienced teaching assistants and two or three recent UCLA Ph.D.'s who have landed good university jobs partly on the strength of their excellent teaching abilities.
The workshops we plan for this summer will be hands-on affairs; it will not do to lecture about how not to lecture. In our workshops, the TAs will assume the role of undergraduate students, and in that role, participate in, active learning experiences such as the ones I've described above. We will divide the TAs into cooperative groups and have them analyze documents and report on their meaning, just as we hope they will have their undergraduates do.
Other pedagogical exercises to which we will introduce the TAs include holding a "press conference" in which three or four students volunteer to play historical figures whose opposing views the group has read. The TAs (still playing the role of undergraduate students) will then ask questions of the "historical figures" based on documents written by those figures. Another such event is to divide the group into debate teams and have them argue the merits of the conflicting ideas they have studied. I have also successfully used the idea of having students turn a particular document, say a portion of the minutes of a constitutional convention, into a play that can be enacted. Useful as well is to have a group of students go through a document and identify a passage exemplary of the whole. They will use textual analysis to justify their choice to the rest of the class.
Techniques such as these need not fill every class or even be used every week; once students become accustomed to participating in class, the urgency of such methods recedes. It remains useful, however, to return to them regularly as ways to inject excitement and active engagement into discussions of primary sources and other historical texts. The TAs in our department who have used such methods almost always find that they make an important difference in the quality of their students' work.
Beyond these classroom strategies, we will devote a full day of the institute to the problem of how to help undergraduates learn to write strong analytical essays. These sessions will examine the entire process of writing, from draft to revision to finished product. We will consider the questions of how to state and support an argument, how to use historical evidence, how to analyze conflicting interpretations, and how to present a case clearly and persuasively. The TAs will also receive advice on how to help students shape a draft into an acceptable paper, and how to create and grade essay exams. As part of this discussion, the TAs will be asked to write short essays themselves and then gently analyze one another's work.
If this summer institute proves as successful as we expect, we plan to make it a regular part of our department's TA orientation. I thought about inviting some elementary school teachers to help lead our workshops, but then I realized they might show me up for the amateur I am.
—Edward Berenson is professor of history at UCLA and former executive director of the California History-Social Science Project.